First Do No Harm

Bullshit Contributes to Cognitive Decline

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s just a bad attitude, but I am sick and tired of the super schism between real life and the laboratory.

Neil deGrasse Tyson loves to say, “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” What he doesn’t tell you is that we have the science on TV in programs like Cosmos and Nova, and then we’ve got the science inside the institutional bastions of our laboratories.

Admittedly, popular science is aimed at a population with a fifth or sixth grade education so that the average person can understand.

But must “laboratory” science be aimed specifically at pedagogues, academicians, and acolytes paying obeisance to hallowed halls? Must they employ a lexicon that it limited to people who are a mere .0001% of the population? And why haven’t these people been forced to take remedial courses in English composition?

When I write something, I’m pretty sure that it is designed to be comprehended by a reader. If I didn’t want to communicate “some thing,” I’d keep it scrambled up inside my own sconce.

I am tired of translating written studies into everyday English. I beginning to believe this entire exercise is not only damaging my brain, but is completely destroying my soul.

Let me give you an example. If someone wants to sue us for “stealing” their work, go ahead. I’m linking to the original articles, but who knows how long these articles will stand before being archived? So, I’m publishing their articles and linking to them.

First, here is the study I found:

Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline

The Northern Manhattan Study

Joshua Z. Willey, MD, MS*, Hannah Gardener, PhD*, Michelle R. Caunca, BS, Yeseon Park Moon, MS, Chuanhui Dong, PhD, Yuen K. Cheung, PhD, Ralph L. Sacco, MD, MS, Mitchell S.V. Elkind, MD, MS and Clinton B. Wright, MD, MS

Published online before print March 23, 2016doi: http:/​/​dx.​doi.​org/​10.​1212/​WNL.​0000000000002582 Neurology 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002582


Objective: Because leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) is protective against incident dementia, we hypothesized that LTPA is protective against decline in domain-specific cognitive performance.

Methods: As part of the Northern Manhattan Study, LTPA was ascertained at enrollment using a validated in-person questionnaire. We assessed cognition in participants in the Northern Manhattan Study MRI substudy using a standard neuropsychological examination (NPE) (n = 1,228), and a repeat examination was performed 5 years later (n = 876). LTPA was summarized as the maximum intensity of any activity performed, classified as none to light intensity (physical inactivity) (90%) vs moderate to heavy intensity (10%). The NPE was subcategorized using standardized z scores over validated domains: processing speed, semantic memory, episodic memory, and executive function. We used multivariable linear regression models to examine the association of LTPA with initial and change in cognitive performance. Analyses were adjusted for sociodemographics, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and MRI findings (white matter hyperintensity volume, silent brain infarcts, cerebral volume).

Results: No/low levels of LTPA were associated with worse executive function, semantic memory, and processing speed scores on the first NPE. The associations were slightly attenuated and no longer significant after adjusting for vascular risk factors. Cognitively unimpaired participants reporting no/low LTPA vs moderate/high levels declined more over time in processing speed (β = −0.231 ± 0.112, p = 0.040) and episodic memory (β = −0.223 ± 0.117, p = 0.057) adjusting for sociodemographic and vascular risk factors.

Conclusions: A low level of LTPA is independently associated with greater decline in cognitive performance over time across domains.

Now wasn’t that fun.

The most salient “truth” in this study is the word “abstract.”

This painting is abstract.

It is abstract and just as comprehensible as that "study." As you can see, the word abstract is proportionately apropos of the study's intent.

Next I’m going to give you the popular science report of the above study. I want you to tell me if YOU got out of this study (above) the same conclusions in the “popular science” version below. If you did….would you like to come work with us?

Brains of elderly people who exercise look 10 years younger

Healthy body, healthy mind. Elderly people who are physically active seem to be able to stave off memory loss – but only if they start exercising before symptoms appear.

At the end of a five-year period, the brains of non-exercisers look 10 years older than those who did moderate exercise. That’s what Clinton Wright at the University of Miami in Florida and his colleagues found when they followed 876 people, starting at an average age of 71, for five years.

At the start of the study, each participant underwent a number of memory and cognition tests, and had the health of their brain assessed during an MRI scan. Each person was also asked how much exercise they had done in recent weeks, ranging from “no/light”, such as walking or gardening, to “moderate/heavy”, which included running and swimming.

Five years later, the volunteers were called back to repeat all the tests. The participants generally performed less well than they had five years earlier. But their scores were linked to their level of exercise – those who reported no or low levels of exercise scored lower in all tests, the team found. The 10 per cent of people who said they had been engaged in moderate-to-heavy exercise not only started with higher scores in the first round of tests, but showed less of a decline five years later .

Start early

Those who did little or no exercise also seemed to have worse vascular health – they had higher blood pressure, and their MRI scans showed evidence of undetected strokes.

Statistically, this MRI data appears to account for the link between exercise and cognitive functioning, suggesting that physical activity is beneficial for the brain because it improves vascular health, for example, by lowering blood pressure. 

My Conclusion

I’m done. I don’t see the connection between the actual study and the report. Reading just the title of the study, one infers that exercise might "cause" cognitive decline.

I’m done reading  studies. I can’t take it. They weren’t written for me. They weren’t written for you. They were written in such a way that only the writers know what the hell they wrote and they really don’t care if anyone outside their circle understands them.

The huge rationalization used is that they need specific language and terminology to avoid any and all misunderstandings.

Right. I don’t buy it. They need this self-perpetuating theater of the absurd to bolster their importance. Publish or perish is still the rule for universities. So publish you pompous, pedagogic prigs. I’m done with you.


After writing this, I sent it to a friend of mine who is a "working" scientist, someone who performs studies, does the statistical analysis and writes them up. Here is her response.

I can understand your frustration but the same argument can be made for legalese or bureaucratese or eduspeak or any number of specializations. Why pick on just the scientists? In the US, most non-medical faculty are only paid for 9 months of the year. Securing grants is not just about funding the science. We also get to pay ourselves a couple of months of salary out of the grant. A person from National Science Foundation said that if the Public is paying for our summer salary, more than what some families of four live on for an entire year in some parts of the country, we ought to be able to explain what we do to the Public. I agree with that but some of my colleagues don't. One of my friends said that I don't get the respect I deserve because I don't complicate the hell out of what I do. I try to make it accessible to non-specialists, which hides the sophistication behind it. So there is internal pressure within the scientific community to make things sound more complicated.

In recent years, there has been increasing pressure for us from funding agencies to give "elevator" pitches about what we do. Easier to do in some areas than others. In my area, for instance, I am not curing a disease. I develop enabling technology which is harder to make sexy.

Your article also reminds me of a guy from Mexico in the same research group in grad school. He was in an absolute panic because he was going back to Mexico to teach but he didn't know how to talk about his science in Spanish.  

I agree. This is not limited to just the sciences, but that's what I'm involved with. Having said that, we all have to deal with the government (at times) and its bureaucracy. And once in a while we have to deal with attorneys.

I get the feeling this started with "the church." For centuries, the Catholic church ran governments. The people spoke German, French, Italian, Old English, but the church spoke Latin. Latin was the secret language of the priests. Latin added a bit of mysticism to the church. I remember a priest at my high school who talked about the changes in the church. He was my German professor. He said he was going to have a hard time referring to God as "you" rather than "thou." Then again, coming from a German background, he was raised with a formal "you" and an informal "you."

But still, the language of the church was mystical. It separated the priests from the population, and that tradition continues on in Law, Government, and Science. Their overall purpose of writing is not communicating, and that is sad because I know a bit about teaching composition since I once did exactly that. I taught something that was quite new back then. The rule was "write with your own voice."

This rule totally went against years of tradition at universities; the unwritten law that papers must be written with a tone of erudition and obscurity. And don't get me wrong. I'm not in favor of the exact opposite that has been also foisted upon us: The sound bite. Sound bites, in the end, say absolution nothing about policy, but exist to elicit a visceral response and fire up an existential threat to our egos.

There is middle ground.

Writing is communicating and if you are not communicating you are not writing, you are composing, constructing, and fabricating. An important key to this exercise is that the word fabricate also means "lie." Yes, they are, in effect, lying.

I will conclude this with a little story about Bertolt Brecht a German poet and playwright, as told by Walter Benjamin, a philosopher and friend of Brecht's.

 “On a beam which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are painted the words: ‘Truth is concrete.’ On a window-sill stands a small wooden donkey which can nod its head.  Brecht has hung a little sign round its neck on which he has written: ‘Even I must understand it’”

Further Reading

Here’s Why Academics Should Write for the Public


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